There Was a Crooked Man is a rather odd little film. With Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda involved you figure it would have to be pretty good. Douglas is a convict in a prison eventually wardened by Fonda. And of course Douglas has the loot from his previous heist squirreled away in the boonies and his only dreams are of escape to recover the goods.
Although the title refers to A crooked man (singular) the overall point is cleary cynically that all have a bit of crookedness in them. And this point is not subtley made. The point is so pervasive throughout the film that it jaundices one’s entire view of the world, for at least a short period.
Douglas himself, in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, confesses that “the picture was very cynical and did not do well- everybody was crooked, nobody to root for.” And although he doesn’t come out and plainly state it, Kirk places at least some of the blame on director Joe Mankiewicz, who previously had directed All About Eve and Cleopatra among others. “He was much more at home with a scene in a library.” This is immediately followed by high praise for the script. Reading between the lines is easy here.
The director doesn’t appear to have had much to really work with as the script has a few good pieces but overall, at least from 2010’s perspective, seems trite and predictable. It’s pretty clear Fonda, although supposedly (initially) the “good” guy, isn’t going to stay that way for long.
The film has some parallels with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre prior and The Shawshank Redemption after. Much like Madre, the “bad guy” meets an untimely end and similar to Shawshank we have a warden of questionable morals. And don’t forget the slight touch of Stalag 17 in the film’s attempts at cynical comedy. That stated, however, lasting comparisons with 17 aren’t a wise idea.
The story of Crooked isn’t so bad if uninspired. Although it sounds petty, what really makes this one so insufferable is the soundtrack. On the best of days it is like a weak movie of the week. The musical score is tepid, tired, and trite. The opening credits alone are enough to make one’s stomach heave. Although perhaps the production’s idea was to have the insipidly silly score mirror the flippancy with which it handles the few serious issues in the film – criminal behavior and the like- the result is rather more like a Yosemite Sam cartoon.
Douglas and Fonda are both tolerable in this and the supporting cast is adequate. Douglas brings his usually wry humor and dry smile to the proceedings but it’s never enough to make this really work. Douglas, the Matthew McConahey of his day (for a time his shirt was off in every film), perhaps should have ended the shirt-free period a film or two early.
Avoid unless you have a fetish for musical butchery. The other two (or three if you include Stalag 17) are much better views, regardless of how well you know them.